Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Albert Mannheimer
Based on a Play by: Garson Kanin
Starring: Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford, Howard St. John
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Born Yesterday began life as a Broadway play written by Garson Kanin. It proved successful, so Hollywood (in the form of Columbia Pictures) jumped on it for a film adaptation. Judy Holliday took the lead role of Billie Dawn in the play, to rave reviews. However, Columbia head Harry Cohn wasn’t interested in casting an unknown for the part in the movie. Reportedly, to try and change his mind, Kanin, director George Cukor, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn offered Holliday a key part in the film Adam’s Rib (1949). She indeed caused an impression and was allowed a screen test for the Born Yesterday film and landed the role. Once again she received rave reviews and even won the Academy Award for Best Actress, against some incredibly strong nominees (Bette Davis and Anne Baxter from All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard).
However, in the same year that Born Yesterday was released, Holliday appeared on a list of “pro-Communist” artists and was brought to face McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt committee to name names. She didn’t give up any information and was never found guilty, but it tainted her film career. She managed to bounce back into notable work in the theatre and made a few films, but never enjoyed the fame she should have received in Hollywood after her Oscar win. Her story drew to an even more tragic end not long after when she died of breast cancer only two weeks away from her 44th birthday.
Thankfully we’re still able to enjoy several of the feature films she made in her short life, including Born Yesterday, which is being released on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Arrow Academy.
The film begins with Billie accompanying her fiancé Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) on a trip to Washington. Brock is a wealthy, tough, uncouth ‘self-made-man’ who made his fortune in the scrap business. He’s in the capital to arrange a shady deal with a crooked politician (Larry Oliver). His rude, aggressive manner doesn’t fit the highbrow company he’s trying to schmooze, but he doesn’t see this. Instead, he’s worried about Billie, whose plain-speaking and abrasive voice, as well as her chorus girl background, might embarrass him in front of his potential business partners. He asks Paul Verrall (William Holden), a respected political journalist who’s trying to interview him, to educate Billie and make her more closely resemble a ‘lady’. Billie does indeed become more educated, but, as she does, she grows more aware of her own rights and desires, as well as Brock’s shortcomings, and falls instead for Paul. As romance blossoms, so does a plan to thwart Brock’s greedy and selfish schemes.
I quickly fell in love with this film and largely because of Holliday. Her performance is simply magnificent. Bette Davis was excellent in All About Eve, as was Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, but there was no injustice in Holliday swiping the Oscar from either of their grips. Her performance here is best known perhaps for her unique spin on the New York (or rather New Jersey) accent. Often loud and shrill but occasionally lurching into deep and quiet whispers, she does amazing things with her voice. A lesser actress (think Maggie Wheeler as ‘Janice’ in Friends) would simply play it as grating, but Holliday shows great range in her vocal delivery to extract comedy from practically every line, as well as subtle but effective emotional depth when required. In fact, the film is quite moving at times when you see how badly Billie is pushed around and how she’s grown cold to it.
Her physicality is superb too. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is a sequence that’s near silent for the first half, where Billie and Brock play whist and she, clearly much smarter than him, swiftly wins every hand. Her quirky mannerisms and reactions are hilarious and say much about her character without any dialogue spelling it out. Billie could be a simple ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype in the wrong hands, but Holliday makes her totally lovable, sympathetic and actually quite clever, if not educated. The script helps too, which I’ll come to later, but its Holliday who really sells it.
The rest of the cast mustn’t be forgotten either. Brock is a nasty piece of work, who’s often cruel to Billie, but Crawford plays it just right so he’s still fun to watch when making a fool of himself and there are glimmers of Brock’s love for Billie that shine through at times. Holden gets lumped with the un-showy straight-guy role, but does a decent job of it, helping the difficult chemistry between the chalk and cheese characters of Billie and Paul work like gangbusters.
The script mustn’t be forgotten though. As great as the performances are, they’d have a hard job making any kind of impression with a ropey script. Luckily Kanin’s play is wonderful and Albert Mannheimer does a decent job of adapting it for the screen (though Kanin reportedly did uncredited rewrites to salvage a weak early draft). The dialogue is very clever (even the ‘dumb’ lines from Billie and Brock) and the character development is well conceived.
It’s got a clear moral/political message, calling for people to stand up against corruption, remember the core values the country was built on and not let selfish businessmen drive the country. There are a few soap-box speeches that aren’t subtle, particularly in the second half. They’re rather idealistic perhaps too, but the messages are passionately delivered and relevant now perhaps even more than they were back then. In Trump’s America, the country is being led by a business-minded bully like Brock and the uneducated public are going along with it, without really thinking.
Anyway, political rant aside, I really enjoyed Born Yesterday. It’s a wonderfully funny and surprisingly touching film which wears its morals on its sleeve. It may not always be subtle, particularly in its politically charged final act, but it’s a joy to watch, largely due to an impossibly good performance from Holliday.
Born Yesterday is out on 21st January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality is flawless. It looks brand new.
There are tonnes of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
– Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Yesterday Today, a newly-filmed video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew
– Remembering Judy Holliday, the academic Richard Dyer celebrates the Oscar-winning actress
– Da na na… BUH-BOOM!, a new video essay on the film by critic David Cairns
– Image gallery
– Original trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Pamela Hutchinson
The three essays/appreciations are all enjoyable and informative. They’re largely centred around Holliday as you might expect, but there’s still plenty of time given to the film’s inception and reception as well as talk about its politics and relevance today.